22 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 19, from Rüeggisberg to Guggisberg

Time: 5.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 850 metres
Height loss: 660 metres

Rüeggisberg – Schwarzenburg – Guggershorn - Guggisberg

With the arrival of a thundery front and heavy rain forecast for Sunday evening, I make the effort to get up early. Although it looks like the rain will not arrive until the middle of the evening, it will start to cloud over during the afternoon, and it will be nice to do as much of today's walk as possible in the sunshine. I get up at seven, am on the train at eight and, after changing to a local train in Bern, then to a bus in Köniz, I am back in front of the Gasthof Bären in Rüeggisberg just before ten.

Guggisberg, the village at the end of today's walk, is located south-west of Rüeggisberg. Rather than heading straight for it though, the Alpine Panorama Trail makes a long and rather pointless-looking detour away from the hills and westwards to Schwarzenburg before turning south. I am very tempted to eliminate this dogleg and find a more direct alternative, but I have omitted to print out all the maps that I would need to be sure of the route and so decide to stick to the official itinerary.

Looking west at the start of the day's walk. The Guggershorn, the highest point reached during the walk, is the rightmost of the two little wooded humps in the middle of the picture
The waymarking in the centre of Rüeggisberg is not the clearest in the world, and it takes a bit of guesswork and studying of the map before I am on my way. I climb slowly up a narrow lane, with a wide view gradually opening up behind me. The sky is not quite such a perfect blue as yesterday; there is a veil of high clouds and already, a few cumulus puffs are beginning to appear above the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. A prominent feature of the previous stage, the high mountains of the Bernese Oberland will soon disappear for good as I continue westwards. Ahead of me the Guggershorn, which I will reach shortly before the end of today's walk, is a prominent little bump in the centre of the view. It looks so close and one again, I wonder at the reason for the detour: maybe because Schwarzenburg offers accommodation options and a train connection back to Bern?

Also ahead of me is the deep cut of the Schwarzwasser valley. One of the features of this stage is that the normal hiking profile of up followed by down is inverted: this walk starts with a significant amount of downhill walking followed by a long climb. During the first hour of the walk I need to keep an eye open for signposts, as the route follows a confusing sequence of lanes and fields, often changing direction unexpectedly. I walk steeply downhill across a pathless pasture that has been heavily and unpleasantly churned by the hooves of cows; at the entrance to the next field, a sign warns me that a sheepdog may be on duty and that I should give it a wide berth and not react to its barking… thankfully, the field is empty and the dog is not in residence today. I do get barked at by a small dog as I pass by the chalet of Weid, 820 m, but it is no more than a token gesture with no real intent.

Now I leave the fields and farm tracks for the heavily wooded Schwandbach valley which runs down towards the Schwarzwasser. The path is muddy and slippery, and occasionally drops down to cross little side streams that run quietly below dripping cliffs of grey rock. The path ends at a lane, which I follow downhill to Rossgrabebrugg, 682 m, where a bridge crosses high above the Schwarzwasser. From now until the end of the walk it will be pretty much uphill all the way. 

Crossing the Schwarzwasser
I climb out of the Schwarzwasser valley along another lane, reflecting that there has already been rather a lot of asphalt underfoot today. Unfortunately, it is not about to get any better. Not only is the surface hard on my feet, but there is also no view to speak of. During the previous two stages, both of which were also transitional walks to get from one mountain area to another, there were at least spectacular views to enjoy. Today there is none of this and more than ever, I wish I had brought along the right maps to work out my own alternative route.

A steep climb up a very muddy forest track cuts off a few bends in the road, which I re-join shortly before the hamlet of Elisried. Two local teenagers go past on old-fashioned mopeds, no helmets on their heads, one hand barely holding the handlebars, deep in conversation. Every few minutes I have to step aside to let tractors go past: this is very much farming country, and the agricultural traffic on the road and in the fields is constant. At Schönentannen, the sound of accordion, double bass and drum from a rustic folk band is coming out of a restaurant. A sign tells me that the hamlet belongs administratively to the village of Mamishaus, a bizarre name which really does mean "Mummy's house". An overgrown path between the edge of a wood and a field of cereal finally brings me to the outskirts of Schwarzenburg after about two and a quarter hours' not very inspiring walking. 

Farming country at Elisried
Schwarzenburg is a typical, medium-sized Swiss country town, and is the focal point of the farming area that I am crossing today. The town's name translates as "Castle Black", which may or may not be a Game of Thrones reference… probably not, in fact. A small, old centre clustered round the village square has a number of attractive houses, but this centre has been somewhat swallowed up by more recent development: not ugly by any means, but lacking in character. The route takes me past the railway station, where I drink deeply from a fountain and refill my water bottle, then southwards out of town past a very un-black little château.

Castle Black?
I have walked from Schwarzenburg to Guggisberg before: I cannot remember exactly when, but it must have been five or six years ago. Oddly, as I follow the road out of Schwarzenburg, I can remember absolutely nothing of the landscape through which I am walking, or of its features. All I can remember from that previous day was that the weather was cold and grey, apparently to the extent that I did not even take any photos. I definitely have no recollection of the fact that the first five kilometres are on yet another asphalted lane, and I envy the cyclists who pass me from time to time. In a field away to the left, two teams are playing the traditional traditional Bernese sport of Hornuss which involves one team walloping a hard wooden puck as far as possible through the air, and the other team trying to catch it before it hits the ground.

Finally, finally, the lane gives way to a stony track at Schiltberg, 860 m. A little way above the farmhouse, I stop for lunch on a bench which offers a very pleasant view back down over the farmland that I have crossed since Schwarzenburg. The sun is still hot on my back but away to the north and west, the sky has started to darken and occasional gusts of wind indicate that the weather will soon be changing. I eat my ham and cheese sandwiches slowly, observed by the large, inquisitive eyes of several cows on the other side of the fence.

Now the way becomes steeper, as I climb up towards the Guggershorn. I climb up along a grassy ridge to a farmhouse that is curiously named Pfad (which means path) on the map, then ever more steeply up a stony forest path which soon takes me above the 1,000-metre contour. The air is becoming increasingly sticky, the kind of conditions that drain your energy in no time, especially when already in a state of post-lunch torpor. The path becomes a lane once again, running up to a little cluster of houses at Walehus, 1103 m. 

Bad weather coming in from the north-west
The next section is the steepest of the day; a hundred metres up a muddy forest path that heads straight up the slope, making no attempt at all to zigzag in order to reduce the gradient. I am completely exhausted by the time I reach the upper limit of the woods and come out onto the grassy saddle between the Guggershorn and its slightly higher neighbour the Schwendelberg. Now, finally, there is something that I remember from my previous visit here: there is a little wooden building at the lowest point of the ridge, which made for a rather cold lunch spot for myself and the friend who had joined me for the walk. A young English-speaking couple are heading up towards the Schwendelberg, but the field that they have to cross is occupied by a dozen or so cows. As is so often the case, the cows have decided to stand on the path: the female half of the couple is clearly terrified of them, and he boyfriend's attempts to move them further away seem to be having exactly the opposite effect. Eventually he manages to persuade her to walk past the cows and they continue up the ridge.

Here, for the first time, the next mountain range comes into view: away to the south, there are the Fribourg Pre-Alps, which I will be walking through during the course of the next three stages. The cloud has thickened and the light is not good, but I can still identify the Chörblispitz, the Schopfenspitz, the Schwyberg which I have crossed twice in snow and fog without ever seeing so much as a glimpse of the view. Further south, those jagged teeth can only belong to the Gastlosen, while to the west, the regular pyramid shape of La Berra shows that I will soon be crossing the linguistic frontier between the German and French-speaking parts of Switzerland.

I continue up the last steep metres to the 1283-metre Guggershorn, the highest point of the day's walk. The summit is a great block of what the Swiss call Nagelfluh, which Wikipedia informs me is conglomerate in English. Vertical cliffs on all four sides would normally make it inaccessible to ordinary walkers like me… but the Swiss have an answer to these things, and a steep wooden staircase – impressive when seen from below but not in any way difficult – facilitates access to the top. The view is pretty much the same as the one from the saddle down below.

The stairs that lead to the top of the Guggershorn
It is only another 20 minutes' walk to Guggisberg, just below the Guggershorn on its southern side. I retrace my steps down the stairs, then follow a zigzagging path through woods and across fields to the village. I have just missed a bus and have an hour's wait until the next one, but that is absolutely not a problem: the Hotel Sternen has a large terrace with a panoramic view and plenty of parasols, and I spend a very happy hour there with a beer and a lemon and pineapple sorbet.

This has been by far the least interesting of the last three lowland stages, with little in the way of views and a really unacceptable amount of road walking. Now though, the Alpine Panorama Trail heads back towards the mountains. The next three stages will take me up the valley of the Sense to Schwarzsee, then over the Euschelspass (the highest point of the entire route at 1566 metres) and down to Jaun, Charmey and Gruyères.

21 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 18, from Münsingen to Rüeggisberg

Time: 5.75 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 915 metres
Height loss: 520 metres

Münsingen – Belpberg – Toffen – Rüeggisberg

I have been told that I need to work seriously on getting my vacation and overtime balance down, as a result of which I find myself with two weeks of unexpected holiday at the end of May. It looks like an opportunity to make some serious progress along the Alpine Panorama Trail: there won't be enough days for me to complete the walk to Geneva, but I am hoping to at least reach Lausanne by the time I go back to work on 6th June.

A lot will depend on the weather, of course. It looks like my two weeks off will start with a hot, sunny Saturday and Sunday, but these will be followed by a wet Monday, after which all bets are off in terms of how long it will take for the bad weather to clear. I decide to use the wet Monday for all the boring household things that I would normally do on Saturday, as a result of which I find myself back at Münisngen station shortly before 11:00 on Saturday morning (having not wanted to get up too early on the first day of my vacation). The morning is sunny and definitely hot rather than just warm: there will be no need for fleeces today.

From the station, I walk westwards through quiet residential streets, then follow a riverside path southwards towards the bridge over the Aare. I overtake two small girls who are walking barefoot in front of me, probably no more than seven or eight years old. As soon as I am past them, a storm of whispering and giggling breaks out: I had no idea I was so funny when seen from behind! Outside the town's riverside sports ground, posters are advertising the next home games of both FC Thun and BSC Young Boys from Bern: it's true that Münsingen is exactly halfway between Bern and Thun, and I wonder which way the majority of the town sways when the two clubs meet each other. There is no sign of any advertising for the matches of FC Münsingen. A girl on a horse overtakes me, and I follow her along the minor road that crosses the Aare on a narrow steel bridge. The river is running fast and high; looking southwards and upstream, the Jungfrau sticks up snowy and white above the turquoise water. On the far bank, as I start to climb, I pass an enclosure where a dog-training session is going on; owners standing beside their dogs with a loud-voiced instructor in the middle. Judging by the noise, the dogs seem to be mostly being trained to bark at each other.

The Aare at Münsingen
Considering that this stage of the Alpine Panorama Trail is one of the furthest away from the mountains, there are some surprisingly steep uphill bits, especially during the first part of the walk over the Belpberg. The initial climb is a case in point: a steep and seemingly endless flight of steps sees me gain a hundred metres in height over a distance of less than half a kilometre. The gradient remains steep until I reach the little cluster of houses at Hindere Chlapf, 764 m. This first section is a mixture of stony farm tracks and quiet lanes, which will remain the pattern for the rest of the day. The guidebook mentions that the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are a prominent feature of the view throughout this stage, but during this first part of the walk, the main feature is the long range of mountains that extends from the Stockhorn to the Gantrisch and beyond. Half-seen in the clouds at the end of the previous stage, today they stand out crystal clear, a series of rocky towers set against the blue sky. Far away in the east, my old friend the Pilatus is still just visible, not wanting to let go completely.

On the Belpberg, with the Stockhorn in the centre on the horizon
I continue uphill, more gently now, along lanes and across fields, gradually climbing up to an altitude of about 860 metres above the hamlet of Hostete. The view in all directions is a beautiful patchwork of fields; some freshly ploughed, some planted with rows of still-green cereals, others a chaotic riot of wild flowers. Now the general direction is downhill, towards the Gürbetal valley. I miss a signpost and arrive at Hostete, with its old wooden houses, from a direction diametrically opposite to the one from which I should have come… so much for my map-reading abilities.

The path drops down steeply now into the Gürbetal, narrow and slippery between the edge of the forest and fields. I cross the flat bottom of the valley on a lane, which eventually brings me to the village of Toffen at about half past twelve. Toffen is Saturday-lunchtime quiet; the only sign of activity is people sitting outside the village's restaurants enjoying a drink in the sun. It is a largely modern, residential village which has presumably grown in recent years thanks to the railway that runs along the bottom of the Gürbetal: Bern is only a 17-minute commute away from here.

Having dropped down from 860 metres to 530 I now need to regain the lost altitude plus some more in addition, given that the highest point of the day's walk is at 967 metres. It's past one o'clock and I am hungry as I begin the steep climb out of the Gürbetal and onto the Längenberg. Thankfully the first (and steepest) part of the climb is in woodland, as the early afternoon has become really hot and sticky. I make hard work of this climb, telling myself that I will soon find a bench where I can stop for lunch. Benches are always in short supply when you need one though, and today is no exception. Just sitting in a field is not really an option: the grass in the fields beside the path is long; it would just be inviting all the ticks and other unpleasant insects in the area to come and feast on my blood. Eventually, just above the farmhouse of Bode, 789 m, I do find a bench with at least one of the required features of view and shade: this one is facing away from the best views, but at least it offers protection from the strong sun. During the first part of the walk I did not see any other people but now, as I sit eating my sandwiches, a number of walkers go by: young couples, older couples, couples with or without dogs.

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau seen from Oberfeld
I continue uphill to Oberfeld, 851 m, with an ever more panoramic view to the south. The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are very much in evidence now and, to their left, the Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn have also appeared. I cross a fairly busy road – tomorrow morning I will actually go along this road in a bus – then continue through a rather muddy patch of woodland. Here, my route is joined by the Swiss national trail No. 4, the Via Jacobi, part of the network of pilgrims' routes that converge on Santiago de Compostela. The Via Jacobi and the Alpine Panorama Trail last crossed right at the start of my walk, not far from Appenzell, and the two long-distance routes now share the same path for the remainder of today's stage.

Leaving the forest, I now turn southwards again and follow a lane across open agricultural land, still with the most amazing view ahead of me. At Leueberg, the path climbs up to a grassy mound at 960 metres, indicated on a signpost as the "Tavel monument". My only knowledge of Tavel relates to rosé wine from the south of France, and I have to do a bit of Googling to discover that this monument is in fact dedicated to a certain Rudolf von Tavel, an early 20th century Bernese writer. There is a clump of trees on top of the mound, in whose shade several benches look out southwards over a grandiose view in which Lake Thun has become visible. I stop here for a rest and a drink of water, joining quite a crowd of people who have walked up from the car park down below to enjoy the panorama.

Lake Thun seen from the Tavel monument
I have reached the highest point of the day's walk, the last hour of which is relatively flat. I follow muddy forest track south-eastwards for half an hour, emerging from the woods to yet another panoramic view, this time looking across to the Gantrisch and its satellites. In the foreground, tractors are going back and forth, collecting freshly cut hay and baling it up into white plastic-covered sausages. Parallel lines of lighter and darker shades of green draw the eye towards the snowy Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, now starting to retreat into the distance. I overtake a couple who are talking in a mixture of languages: the woman is constantly switching between French and French-accented German, while her companion replies in Bernese dialect.

The Gantrisch range, shortly before arriving at Rüeggisberg
I reach the quiet hillside village of Rüeggisberg, at an altitude of 930 metres, at about a quarter past four. I have a good half an hour to wait for the bus, which I spend pleasantly at a table outside the Gasthof zum Bären, with a large beer in front of me and my boots off to rest my tired feet. It has been an enjoyable day's walk with some really superb scenery. Tomorrow I will be back for the next stage.

15 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 17, from Neumühle to Münsingen

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 870 metres
Height loss: 970 metres

Neumühle – Moosegg – Blaseflue – Grosshöchstetten – Mündigen

After the magnificent crossing of the Napf last weekend (during which I passed the halfway point of the Alpine Panorama Trail), my expectations for the next two or three stages are not so high. These stages cross lower-lying ground, and form a transition between the hills of central Switzerland and the spiky mountains of the Fribourg Pre-Alps. I am nevertheless looking forward to walking them, as they will take me through unfamiliar country before I launch into a series of legs that I have already hiked in the past.

It's the second of three long weekends during May, and the weather forecast is considerably less promising than it was last weekend. A cold front will bring rain on Saturday and Monday… Sunday should be OK, with equal mounts of cloud and sun. The uninspiring forecast must have triggered a mass exodus south of the Alps for the holiday weekend; Lucerne station is unusually deserted at nine on Sunday morning, and I am one of only three passengers on the train to Langnau. The connection there is unusually poor by Swiss standards, and I have to wait almost 25 minutes for the train to Neumühle, just one station and five minutes down the line.

The sky is mostly cloudy as I start walking, with occasional patches of blue here and there: the proportion of sun to cloud will gradually increase as the day goes on and the weather improves. The air is quite chilly, not quite enough to justify the gloves which I have anyway forgotten to bring, but not far off. There has been some very heavy rain over the last two days and the Grosse Emme, which I cross right at the start of the walk, is a fast-flowing mass of brown water, just about staying within its banks. Also right at the start of the walk, I pass the place where my east to west national trail No. 3 intersects the north to south trail No. 2… maybe my next project after I finish this one?

A grassy path leads me up above Lauperswil in the Emmental
I walk through the village of Lauperswil with its whitewashed church, then start to climb uphill out of the Emmental valley, up a somewhat overgrown, grassy path. Looking back down into the valley, everything is very green, with occasional flashes of more vivid colour where a ray of sun has managed to break through and splash its light onto the surface of a field. Away to the east in the background, the summits of the Napf range which I crossed during the last two days' walk have their heads in the clouds: how lucky was our choice of weekend when we did that hike, this weekend we would have had no views and would probably have abandoned in a soggy mess. The path runs briefly along a ledge between bands of rock, then emerges onto a farm road by the ruined castle of Wartenstein, 787 m. The ruin is uninspiring, no more than a stump of a round tower surrounded by trees.

Turning south-westwards now, I continue along a succession of farm tracks and grassy paths across meadows. Uphill sections and flatter sections follow each other, while the Emmental gradually drops away to my left as I gain height. I pass a family group of four adults and four children coming the other way. We exchange the usual polite greetings; the last child in the group, who must be six or seven, gives me a very Bernese "Grüessech", then runs off down the path singing "We will… we will… ROCK YOU!" at the top of his voice. The path winds prettily round the tops of little valleys where sheep are enjoying the lush spring grass, very muddy in places after all the recent rain. I am approaching one of several places marked on the map as Moosegg: the word Moos means moss or marsh in Swiss German and, in place names, tends to be a sure indication of somewhere damp and boggy.

Looking back down eastwards into the Emmental...

... and northwards towards the Jura
All of these Mooseggs are isolated hamlets on a ridge in the middle of nowhere, but one of them has a school and the next one, at an altitude of about 960 metres, can even boast a large hotel and a bus stop, albeit served by only four buses a week: two on Saturday and two on Sunday. The official guidebook to the Alpine Panorama Trail has this as the end of a stage that started at Lüderenalp: having continued beyond Lüderenalp to Neumühle last weekend, I have got out of sync with the guidebook and am planning to walk a stage and a half today to compensate. A little further on, at Waldhäusern, 967 m, there is another big old hotel-restaurant in the middle of nowhere, an appetizing smell of lunch wafting out of the open windows to remind me that it is almost one o'clock. Opposite the restaurant, a drinking fountain bears a notice written by the hotel owner, informing walkers that the water has not been officially certified as drinkable… into which I read the hidden meaning: "Don't drink this free water, come and buy a bottle of mine."

A very green landscape near Moosegg
Now for the short but fairly steep climb to the Blaseflue, the day's highest point at an altitude of 1118 metres. If I am not mistaken, this is the last summit crossed by the Alpine Panorama Trail. The name Blaseflue could be translated as something like "Windy Hill": there is no wind on its wooded summit but also no view because of the trees, so I decide to carry on a bit down the far side; no doubt I will come across a bench in front of a nice view before long.

And indeed I do. After five minutes' downhill walking, the forest suddenly comes to an end and there in front of me is a red wooden bench, looking south-west towards a wonderful view of rolling fields, farms, lanes and woods, all very nicely framed by trees. It looks like an absolutely perfect spot for lunch and, why not, for half an hour's sketching afterwards. Except that as soon as I sit down, I realise that all the wind that wasn't blowing on top of the Blaseflue is blowing here… and that it's a really, really cold wind! Despite putting on my Goretex jacket, I am freezing within minutes… what could have been a lazy hour turns into one of the shortest lunch breaks I can remember having while hiking, as I eat my salad and cheese as quickly as possible before my hands drop off.

Nice view... but what a cold wind!
Of course, five minutes later I am a hundred metres lower down, the wind has stopped blowing, the sun has come out and it is warm… such are the joys of hiking. Now comes another long series of farm lanes, forest tracks and grassy paths, never spectacular but always pretty. In this gently undulating landscape, the route manages to keep to the highest available ground, which means that the views in all directions are extensive pretty much all the time. My only regret is that the mountains of the Bernese Alps are still hidden away to the south; although the clouds are definitely clearing, it appears unlikely that they will clear enough to reveal their snowy peaks. Closer at hand, the Hohgant and Schrattenflue are just about visible, and look like they are carrying a fair bit of fresh snow. At Büel, 956 m, I pass a house in whose garden a large model railway layout has been built. No trains are operating (maybe there is no Sunday service in this isolated place?), but a black and white cat is sitting beside the tracks, as if waiting for something to happen.

This is what cats do while waiting for the train
Now the path drops down towards Grosshöchstetten, a large village which has a proper railway station, and would be a good place to stop for anyone wanting to shorten this day's walk. Grosshöchstetten clearly has a farming history, as testified by the numerous old wooden houses and barns, but there is also a lot of modern development and the village has spread out from its centre across a sunny, south-facing hillside. Presumably it has discovered a new vocation as a dormitory town for Thun, Burgdorf and Bern. The village has an unusual number of stone water troughs and fountains: the ground below must be full of springs.

I cross the village, leaving it on its western side along a lane that climbs back up to an altitude of 873 metres, turning the wooded Hürnberg on its south side. Ahead of me, beyond the Aare valley into which I will now start to descend, the clouds have continued to clear from the mountains. The summits of the Gantrisch and its neighbour the Nünenenflue are now clearly visible, but the Stockhorn at the other end of the same range is still buried in thick cloud, as is the pyramidal Niesen further south. At Ballenbüel, 852 m, all of this background is perfectly set off by a solitary tree on a grassy hump. The line of a farm track and the symmetrical furrows of a ploughed field lead the eye towards this tree, then away beyond it to the mountains in the distance.

I drop down towards the village of Gysenstein. In a field beside the road, four very small kids (of the goat variety, not he human one) are playing in the sunshine. The two smaller ones are standing on top of a tree stump, from which they are promptly ejected by the other two animals, who must be a few days older and are slightly larger. Even in the world of baby goats, games of power are being played out and a hierarchy is being established. A little further on, on the other side of the road, I am surprised to see a field containing maybe seven or eight donkeys: not an animal that one sees very often and when you do see one, it is more usually either alone or paired off with a horse than with others of its own kind. I cross the Bern – Lucerne railway on a level crossing beside the little station at Tägertschi (another possibility for tired feet to shorten the walk), then begin the final half hour's descent to Münsingen. A field of oilseed rape to the right of the lane is positively buzzing with activity; every bee in the canton of Bern has homed in on it, judging by the noise.

The clouds clear gradually from the Gantrisch range
Münsingen, the destination of this walk, is the largest town on the Alpine Panorama Trail since Lucerne. It is also the closest that the route comes to Bern, and the proximity of the capital city can definitely be felt. If Grosshöchstetten is somewhere on the edge between country and suburbia, Münsingen is very much suburban, and quite upmarket suburban as well, I would guess. Quiet residential streets, big houses, a well-maintained château, it looks like a nice little town, maybe just spoilt a bit by the busy road and railway that run through it.

It has been a pleasant walk; not spectacular by any means, but once again the views have justified the route's name. The next stage will take me across the Aare river, over the Belpberg and through the Gürbetal valley, then southwards to Rüeggisberg. With two weeks' holiday coming up and ten or eleven stages left to walk, I should have made good progress towards Geneva by the end of the first week of June.

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07 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 16, from the Napf to Neumühle

Time: 6 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1117 metres
Height loss: 1772 metres

Napf – Lushütte – Lüderenalp – Neumühle

If there is one thing that I have found frustrating about my walk along the Alpine Panorama Trail, it is that I have been doing what is intended to be a long distance route as a series of day hikes. It may be a practical solution, but it breaks up the continuity of the walk and removes the sense of accomplishing a journey. And so, the pleasure is all the greater when the opportunity comes to link two stages together, to wake up in the mountains and continue the trail straight from breakfast, with no need for trains or buses.

There are worse views to see on getting up in the morning...
Breakfast is served at eight at the Berghotel Napf. We open the shutters of our room to a stunning view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau set against a clear blue sky, with just a few wisps of cloud at a high altitude. It may only be the seventh of May but astonishingly, it is warm enough to sit outside in the sun for breakfast. The pigeon which caused the hotel owner so much surprise yesterday evening is still there: apparently it has realised that a sunny hotel terrace with a steady stream of hikers and bikers corresponds to a sure supply of food. A solitary hiker appears from the western side of the hill, goes inside the hotel, emerges again with a bottle of beer and a croissant, and goes off to the furthest bench to enjoy his mainly liquid breakfast opposite the giant peaks of the Bernese Oberland. We recognise various people from the previous evening, and will continue to see some of them throughout today's walk: a couple with a black and white sheepdog, a mountain biker with extremely bright green shorts, a French-speaking group of five who, over breakfast, are debating the pros and cons of allowing dairy produce to be imported from the Netherlands. We amuse ourselves by inventing names for the people in the group, and by imagining who is whose partner, father or sister.

We take our time over breakfast – after all, today's stage is going to be a mere stroll compared to yesterday, pretty much all downhill – and so it's almost half past nine before we are ready to set off. It would be perfectly easy to just stay here all day, taking in the view and slowly roasting in the sun. We may not have followed the path to Paradisli yesterday, but this isn't far off. Still, we have six hours' walking ahead of us and need to be on our way.

We follow a narrow path that zigzags down the grassy eastern side of the hill, then enters the forest to drop more steeply down. This path is typical of many that we will follow this morning: narrow, muddy in places, contouring above sometimes very steep wooded slopes. Occasional breaks in the trees open up beautiful views down into hidden valleys, where the low morning sunlight creates patterns of bright and dark green on the spring grass. The forest is full of the sound of birds singing… I cannot remember ever having been so acutely conscious of birdsong, or of the variety of different calls you hear in a hundred square metres of woodland. One song in particular stands out, with pairs of birds tweeting it to each other in the trees that overhang the path. Neither of us is in any way skilled at identifying birds; back home in the evening, after much scouring of websites, we identify it as belonging to a chaffinch. In one or two places, landslides have damaged the path, which appears to have been very recently rebuilt. A week or two earlier in the season, we may not have been able to pass here.

Old sign at Niederänzi
We leave the forest just before the alp chalet of Niederänzi, 1235 m, where the narrow path and steep slopes make way for a broad, grassy ridge which offers extended views on both sides. Way away to the north, a single field of bright yellow oilseed rape stands out in a sea of green. Further afield again, the complete absence of wind is demonstrated by the steam rising perfectly vertically from the nuclear power station at Gösgen. An old metal sign for Felsenau beer is fixed to the carved wooden wall of the chalet, which must have served as a rustic mountain restaurant at some time in the not too distant past.

A steep climb lies ahead of us now: 150 metres from the Änzisattel to the chalets of Hochänzi, almost back at the altitude of our starting point on the Napf. I set a slow pace up the stony, zigzagging track, telling my friend that this is pretty much the only uphill section of the whole day. Halfway up, we overtake an older man who is suffering and has stopped for a rest. "Nearly at the top", I reassure him… which turns out to be completely false, as there is considerably more hill hidden behind what I thought was the last bend. 

Ever since Stächelegg yesterday afternoon, we have been walking along the boundary between the cantons of Lucerne and Bern. Now, at Hochänzi, the border veers right and we carry on into Bernese territory: central Switzerland is definitively behind us. We contour around the rim of another deep, wooded bowl of a valley; though never really exposed, the path is narrow and the drop to our left is steep enough to keep the mind concentrated. After two hours of very pleasant, scenic walking we arrive at Lushüttenalp, 1323 m, where food and drink are served and where the long wooden tables outside the large chalet are an unavoidable invitation to stop for a coffee. The couple with the sheepdog pass by without stopping, while the mountain biker in the lurid green shorts also stops for refreshments. Hens cluck and the bells round the necks of goats tinkle, it is a very nice place for a 20-minutte breather. Half a dozen other bikers are already sitting there with glasses of Rivella. In fact we see a lot of mountain bikers today and even one mixed group of walkers and bikers, which I have not seen before.

Now the general trend is more markedly downwards, although there are still any number of minor ups and downs to firmly disprove my "all downhill today" theory. Wooded sections above deep valleys alternate with broader, more open grassy ridges. The ground falls steeply away on both sides, so that the steep drop is sometimes to our right and sometimes to the left. A short distance before Lüderenalp, a very panoramic bench makes an ideal spot for a sunny lunch break. No fancy salads this time: today's fare is much simpler, with cherry tomatoes, three kinds of cured meat and two sorts of cheese. After a bit less than four hours' walking, we arrive at Lüderenalp, with its hotel and car-park at an altitude of 1164 metres… we have still only lost 250 metres overall in altitude since the start of the day's walk, despite the innumerable ups and downs of the path. 

Beyond Lüderenalp is unfamiliar territory to me. The path turns south and heads towards the valley of the Grosse Emme and our destination at Neumühle. I fully expect this second part of the walk to be less interesting, imagining it to be most likely a long trudge down a farm road into the valley. Once again though, I am completely wrong. The path stays on the grassy ridge between two southward-running valleys and even climbs uphill again, to cross a grassy hump at 1201 metres. Hard surfaces underfoot are avoided almost entirely, and the view is constantly changing and constantly panoramic, thanks to the ridge top route followed by the path. We are right on the western edge of the hills here: to our right, the ground falls away into a pretty, undulating patchwork of fields, thickets and farmhouses. To the left, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are still there, seen from a different angle now, while the Niesen and Stockhorn are easily identifiable ahead.

Inoffensive afternoon clouds
Finally, the path begins the descent to Neumühle in the Emmental. At Hollerenscheuer, 900 m, we pass in front of a particularly magnificent old wooden house, opposite which is an equally superb vegetable garden complete with tulips and forget-me-nots. Further on, what appears to be a gigantic lilac tree in full bloom has grown to a height of some 10 metres… on closer inspection, its white flowers are not lilac at all, but give off a sweet honey perfume that suggests that they might be used in some kind of herbal tea.

We arrive at the village of Neumühle, with its well-tended modern houses and equally manicured gardens. In its centre, a set of Venetian gondoliers' poles have been transported to the local stream, adding a slightly wacky touch to this peaceful Emmental village. We arrive at the station shortly before five in the afternoon, after something like six hours of actual walking. Far from an easy stroll, it has been quite a long and strenuous day's walk, as the soles of my feet and my calf muscles keep reminding me. Even so, I am amazed when, on calculating the day's statistics, I discover that we have climbed more than 1100 metres and have descended a whopping 1772 metres since leaving the Napf!

Venice comes to the Emmental
The train arrives for the short journey to Langnau, where we change for Lucerne. A beer on the balcony and a bath are soon followed by an apéritif glass of Heida with the leftovers from our picnic lunch, then a very tasty dinner of chicken and new potatoes with a tarragon cream sauce… it has been an immensely satisfying weekend.

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06 May 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 15, from Wolhusen to the Napf

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 1330 metres
Height loss: 500 metres

Wolhusen – Menzberg – Stächelegg - Napf

From Wolhusen, the Alpine Panorama Trail turns its back on central Switzerland, climbing up over the Napf range before descending into the Emmental valley and continuing its westward journey towards the Bernese and Fribourg Pre-Alps. The crossing of the Napf requires at least two days' walking (the official guidebook cuts it up into three stages); it also involves a more or less mandatory overnight stop on the 1403-metre summit, accessible only on foot with no public transport close at hand. It therefore seems like a perfect option for a long weekend, which I will be spending with a friend who already joined me for a previous stage of the trail, from Einsiedeln to Oberägeri in December.

I book accommodation at the Berghotel Napf and sit back to wait for winter to end. Those who have been reading this blog will remember that having reached Wolhusen on 19th March, I put my walk on hold while waiting for the snow to clear from the hills. A month and a half has passed since then, during which winter made a serious comeback, with snow falling at low altitudes right through to the first weekend in May. Only two days ago it was still raining hard; miraculously though, things suddenly improved in the middle of the week, and the forecast for the four-day holiday weekend is absolutely perfect.

We start walking at 9:20 on Friday morning, after a short train ride from Lucerne to Wolhusen. Leaving the little town behind us, we are immediately faced with the 250 metres of steep uphill walking that are needed to climb out of the valley of the Kleine Emme and onto the hills above it. The morning is warm and sunny and, despite our slow pace (we have 1300 metres of height gain to cover, a lot for so early in the season), we are soon well and truly warmed up. Very quickly, the view opens out to reveal a grandiose panorama to the south-east, with the entire length of the Pilatus range visible, still carrying a lot of snow after the cold snap that has just ended. Farm tracks lead to freshly-cut grassy fields: the first haymaking of the summer is in full swing as farmers make the most of the forecast three days of warm, dry weather to cut the long spring grass and let it dry before storing it for later in the year. 

The Alpine Panorama Trail living up to its name...
At Steinhuserberg, an odd-looking building with a crucifix on top looks for all the world like a silo but turns out to be a sizeable, modern church in the middle of nowhere. Here, for the first time, a new Alpine panorama comes into view: away to the west, in the distance, are the three unmistakeable pyramids of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. They will be very much a feature of the next few stages of the walk, no doubt about that. We continue past large farmhouses where the medals won by the farm's cows in agricultural shows are proudly and prominently displayed alongside the names of the latest additions to the farmer's family. In a field, beside the path, and old cable car cabin from Engelberg has been converted into a shelter for the locals, a cosy place for a fondue with a view on a chilly autumn evening. Behind us, the Pilatus and the Rigi gradually fade into the distance as the Alpine Panorama Trail says farewell to the landscape crossed over the previous four or five stages.

The Rigi and Pilatus gradually disappear behind
At lunchtime, we reach a grassy knoll above Menzberg, where wooden benches and a 360-degree panorama are too good to ignore. The choice is difficult: should we eat our lunch while admiring the Pilatus to the east, the Bernese Oberland to the south-west or the Plateau with its patchwork of fields to the north? Lunch itself is a salad of pasta, hard-boiled egg and tomato with pumpkin seed oil, followed by cheese and fruit. We have opted for the eastward view, in which the Säntis is a prominent feature some 120 kilometres away as the crow flies. I can see pretty much the entire route that I have covered since starting my walk a little more than a year ago.

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau are prominent in the distance
The first hour or so of walking after lunch is on hard surfaces, as a concrete farm road takes us through pretty, rolling countryside towards Gmeinalp. Up ahead, the high cliffs on the Napf's northern side are now a prominent feature of the landscape. Gradually the path, which has been quite flat since lunch, starts to climb again: we have reached the start of the day's second significant climb, about 400 metres from Gmeinalp up to the summit of the Napf.

The climb is mostly in forest, sometimes on broad tracks, sometimes on narrow paths. We pass quite a few mountain bikers coming downhill, leaning right back in an attempt to defy the gravity that is trying to propel them over the handlebars. At the isolated Chrothütte, a Swiss Alpine Club hut, there is a spring where we fill up our water bottles before continuing steeply uphill. A signpost indicates an hour's walk to a place called Paradisli, or "little paradise", unfortunately not the direction that we are taking. At a place where the path crosses a stream, there is a large picnic area with wooden benches and a barbecue; here, nailed to a post, is a box bearing the legend Reise-Apotheke (travel pharmacy). Expecting it to contain emergency supplies, we open the box… inside are three bottles of different kinds of Schnaps.

Alpine emergency pharmacy...
The path continues above vertical cliffs to reach the saddle of Stächelegg, 1303 metres, where the farmhouse is serving drinks to quite a few people who are sitting there admiring the view southwards. It is a very different picture to when I was last here in January 2012: then, in deep snow and thick fog, a newly born calf was getting a tough introduction to life in the hills. From Stächelegg, a last, steep half an hour of walking brings us at last to the summit of the Napf, with its rustic, wooden hotel. 

In contrast to the cliffs on its northern side, the summit of the Napf is completely flat. The hotel is surrounded by a large grassy area that could almost be called a lawn, from where the view is uninterrupted and stunning in every direction. Most prominent are the giants of the Bernese Oberland, which have now come significantly closer and are immediately opposite to the south. Eastwards, the Pilatus is still there and in the far distance, the Glärnisch is a white block of snow. Further west, the Stockhorn is another familiar landmark, poking vertically up above Thun. Further away still, there is the Dent de Folliéran, the "Fribourg Matterhorn". And could that be the Mont Blanc range in the far distance… maybe not.

We arrive at the summit at half past three, after about five and a half hours' walking, not including breaks. We have been half an hour faster than the time indicated at the start of the walk in Wolhusen, a fact that pleases me greatly given my early season lack of fitness. I order a beer and my friend gets a Suure Moscht, a lightly alcoholic cider, and we sit there in the sun for the best part of two hours, enjoying the view and watching the arrivals and departures of walkers and mountain bikers. A pigeon has somehow found its way up here; the owner of the hotel says he has never seen this before, and all the staff come out to look at this unexpected sight. Other smaller birds flutter crazily around, their flight anything but horizontal as they continually dart from tree to tree.

Sunset on the Napf
When the sun leaves our part of the terrace at about six, we get the key to our first-floor room with a perfect view out over the lawn towards the north face of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. The shower, which I remember being cold on my previous winter visit, is hot and perfect after a sweaty and tiring day. We have dinner inside, but there are quite a few people still sitting outside eating as the sun gradually descends to the west… dinner outside at 1400 metres, at eight in the evening in early May, who would have thought it? A tasty mushroom soup is followed by Älplermagronen mit Apfelmuss for my friend and a rather good sausage with a shallot sauce for myself.

After dinner, we go outside to look at the stars and the distant lights of towns. Far below and away to the east, a large concentration of lights indicates a large town… could it be Lucerne? I would have expected it to be further away, but I cannot guess what other town in the area would be so spread out.

It has been a very enjoyable day indeed. Tomorrow will be easier, I tell my friend: pretty much all downhill and gentler terrain than today…

A room with a view

10 April 2016

A short walk to the Mutzbachfall and the Oberbüelschnubel

Time: 3.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 575 metres
Height loss: 575 metres

Riedtwil – Mutzbachfall – Oberbüelschnubel – Oschwand - Riedtwil

Another sunny Sunday, and another day with a watery theme to it, at least in its first part. This short, circular walk is an attractive combination of waterfalls, woods, fields and gently rolling countryside, at the end of a week when colder weather has brought a fresh dusting of snow to the mountains.

The walk starts in the village of Riedtwil, between Herzogenbuchsee and Burgdorf in the depths of the countryside east of Bern. It’s a rather inconvenient place to get to: trains no longer stop at the village’s railway station and although there is an hourly bus service, there is a gap in the timetable at just the point that would have coincided with a comfortable 9 a.m. start from Lucerne. The choice is between 8:00 and 10:00: I go for the relaxed option, which means that I only start walking at half past eleven.

Old house in Riedtwil
Riedtwil is a tranquil backwater, its attractive old farmhouses stung out along a lane alongside which flows a little stream, the Mutzbach. The architecture here is very different from that of the Lucerne area: the large, half-timbered houses would not look out of place in Normandy, were it not for their very Swiss roofs. Even the landscape would pass for Normandy if the valleys were a little less deep.

The stream leads me southwards, the lane soon veering off to the left while I continue along the first of the day’s many grassy paths. A couple is standing beside the stream having their photo taken: she is in a long, black evening dress, he is wearing a suit. I continue into a very green valley whose sides gradually become higher. The grassy path becomes muddy in places and tall trees lean over the stream, just starting to come into leaf.

Just as I am telling myself what a lovely, peaceful place this is, the tranquillity is broken. I have caught up with a large group of families, out for a walk together. There must be ten adults, as many children and two or three dogs. They are talking noisily, and are strung out over a distance of maybe half a kilometre. I debate whether to try to get ahead of them (but this would mean hurrying and not enjoying the scenery) or letting them get ahead of me (but that would mean stopping for a quarter of an hour, then catching up with them again later). In the end I just decide to ignore them, and for the next fifteen minutes we constantly overtake each other as I stop to take photos of the little stream, which flows very prettily over several small waterfalls.

The Mutzbach flows over small waterfalls...
After half an hour’s walking, the valley becomes abruptly more narrow, its sides higher and rockier. And ahead, here is the main feature of the walk: the Mutzbachfall. Fifteen metres high, it is a surprisingly big waterfall for such an insignificant stream, which is not even in the mountains. A white ponytail of water glistens in the sun as it plunges over a rocky sill and down into a pool below. The contrast between white water, dark grey rock, orange and brown leaves, green moss and the colours of various plants is really beautiful.

... and over the 15-metre-high Mutzbachfall

A short, steep climb leads up to the top of the fall, ending in a short, almost vertical metal ladder. The dogs are having trouble getting up the ladder, which enables me to get ahead of most of the family group. Past the fall, the path drops back down to the bank of the stream, which it crosses on a wooden footbridge, before running southwards along the opposite bank through a tunnel of greenery. It then climbs gradually up and away from the valley bottom, turns west and leaves the forest for more open countryside.

The view now opens up to reveal a landscape of green fields dotted with cows; rounded hills topped with lines of trees silhouetted against the horizon; hedgerows and copses; and deep valleys running back down towards the Mutzbach, which has managed to carve a gorge out of all proportion to its tiny size. Ahead is the little cluster of houses that forms the village of Rüedisbach, at an altitude of 640 metres: I head towards it across grassy meadows where cows stare at me curiously from behind a fence.

The village is tiny, and it only takes me a minute to walk through it an out the other side, passing through a field of pungent cabbages, then continuing steeply up a grassy hillside to reach a lane which soon brings me to the hamlet of Wil. Two women walking the other way ask me for directions to a local farmhouse which apparently featured in some film or other. I cannot help them, but show them where we are on the map that I printed out at home, and give them the page covering the part of the walk that I have already done and which I no longer need.

Tranquil, pastoral landscape at Rüedisbach
The lane climbs steadily uphill now towards the 818-metre Oberbüelschnubel, a rounded green hump of a hill that marks the highest point of the walk. Gradually the view southwards and south-westwards becomes more and more extensive, with row upon row of fields, woods and farmhouses leading away to the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, almost invisible in the haze. In the foreground, the fruit trees are almost but not quite in blossom: without the cold snap of the last few days, they would probably be flowering. A bird of prey hovers very close above me, then drops suddenly to pick up some small animal from the ploughed field to the right of the path and takes to the air again.

I reach the top of the Oberbüelschnubel at about ten past one, just right for lunch. There are some benches on the summit, but they face away from the best views and there is another noisy family group there, so I drop down a few metres to the east, where a nicely placed bench provides an attractive spot for me to eat my sandwiches, cherry tomatoes and apple. After lunch, I set off down a grassy crest that winds its way down to the little village of Ferrenberg, 754 m. Two magpies flutter away from a hedge just in front of me: One for sorrow, two for joy, the rhyme says, and it's not too often that I can remember seeing the magic number of two together.

Ferrenberg is even more of a backwater than the other villages through which I have passed. In its centre is a very old-fashioned looking restaurant, out of whose door is coming a series of very old-looking local inhabitants. The façade of the restaurant is displaying an odd collection of old signs: there is an ancient-looking advert for Feldschlösschen beer and a metal plaque indicating that the place has a telephone. The restaurant sign itself bears a picture of what would have probably been called a "savage" back in the day, bearing a bow and arrow, naked except for a grass skirt. A few metres further on, the lane passes under a wooden gallery connecting two large farm buildings: there is a height restriction sign above the passage, plus another one that says, in English: Cows crossing.

The restaurant at Ferrenberg
I leave the lane for yet another one of those grassy paths, which climbs up onto another ridge, unnamed on the map but at an altitude of 815 metres. Past this point, my route turns northwards as I begin the return back to my starting point at Riedtwil. A longish stretch of asphalted lane follows, mostly in forest and with no views. This eventually gives way to a succession of muddy tracks, some boggier than others. A surprising number of cyclists; not just mountain bikers, but also normal road bikes and a number of people pass me on electric bikes as well. Clearly these quiet, undulating lanes and woodland tracks are popular for bike tours. 

Between Wäckerschwend and Oschwand
A lane winds round a series of hillsides before bringing me to Wäckerschwenden, yet another one of those backwater villages that punctuate the walk. It seems hard to believe that the capital city is only half an hour away; rarely in the Swiss lowlands have I been in an area that feels quite so out of the way. I climb out of the village to a junction of lanes and forest tracks at 760 metres, and suddenly, on leaving the forest, the Jura mountains appear right ahead, with the Weissenstein above Solothurn the most prominent feature. In the foreground, a newly ploughed field offers multiple shades of brown against the blue backdrop of the hills. I follow farm tracks north-westwards to Oschwand, a somewhat larger village. From here, the last of the day's grassy paths runs quite steeply downhill, taking me back into the valley of the Mutzbach, which I re-join close to the starting point of my walk at the southern end of Riedtwil. A short walk, and by no means an exciting one, but I am perfectly happy to have seen three hours' worth of rolling countryside under a warm, spring sun.

03 April 2016

When the Kleine Emme becomes the Waldemme

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 760 metres
Height loss: 320 metres

Schüpfheim – Flühli – Sörenberg

A week after my Easter Saturday walk along the Kleine Emme, I am back in Schüpfheim to continue upstream. It is a warm day, although the sky is only partially blue and there is a thick haze – the fault of dust carried by the strong southerly winds from the Sahara, according to Meteosuisse.

A short walk from the station brings me back to the riverbank, with its familiar bird boxes and picnic areas. Daisies are growing alongside the path, and forsythia is flowering yellow. In an adventure playground, children are whizzing from tree to tree down a zip line while two women - maybe their mothers - are exercising in perfect synchronisation on what looks like an instrument of torture, standing in stirrups and pumping their legs rhythmically. I pass behind new blocks of flats, as yet unoccupied, then alongside one of the region’s many sawmills, following the river out of town.

On the outskirts of town, opposite the Gasthaus Bad (would you eat in a place with a name like that?), I come to a place where the Kleine Emme splits into two, and where the river’s name changes. Flowing in from the west is the smaller Wiss Emme (or “white Emme”). The main stream, which I will be following, runs down from the mountains to the south and, upstream of this point, is called the Waldemme or “forest Emme”. I cross the river on a covered wooden bridge where plaques commemorate not one, but two fatal accidents; one in 1909 and the second in 1958. I wonder what can have caused two such tragedies in the same place as I cross the bridge, making it safely to the far bank.

The Wiss Emme joins the Waldemme on the outskirts of Schüpfheim. Together, they form the Kleine Emme.
Now the path narrows and climbs up above the river, atop a steep, almost vertical bank. A metal cable secures the narrowest section; though the path is broad and easy, a slip in wet conditions could lead to a nasty fall here. The river seems louder and wilder here than it was east of Schüpfheim, its course natural and unaffected by man-made diversions or canalisations. At Anetämme I cross back to the east bank; here, the path temporarily leaves the riverside, heading eastwards to cross the main road, then turning southwards again to climb along a narrow lane above the mouth of the Lammschlucht gorge. An elegant stone bridge high above the entrance to the gorge carries the road up towards Sörenberg, the three-note sound of a post-bus horn echoing between the rocky walls.

Wood and water... on a covered bridge near Schüpfheim
Following the lane uphill above grey cliffs, I come to Chlusstalde, a tiny hamlet consisting of just one house and a fairly large, whitewashed chapel. A sign beside the chapel indicates the direction to a "Lourdes grotto"; I follow the sign, hoping for some kind of cavern cut into the cliff face, but the grotto is no more than a little niche in the chapel wall, complete with an arched roof and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Two or three hundred metres further on, after crossing a side stream on a bridge, the path leaves the lane down a steep flight of metal stairs and heads back towards the river, contouring along the edge of the cliffs above the Lammschlucht. Large farmhouses dot the hillside above, each easily identifiable by its name written in big, white letters on the side of the farmhouse, as is the custom in the area. Disappointingly, the path stays high above the river, offering only partial views down through the trees to the wild water far below. Only at one point, where the gorge narrows, does the path drop down to leap across the turbulent river on a metal footbridge.

In the Lammschlucht gorge
I reach the southern end of the gorge, where the valley widens out very suddenly. Ahead of me, the river runs straight, leading the eye up a series of little waterfalls, beyond conifers and into the mountainous distance. I stop for a quick lunch break here, using a handily placed bench to eat my sandwich and apple (one of my more minimalist hiking picnics, it must be said). In the distance up ahead, the high ridge of the Brienzergrat, frontier between central Switzerland and the Bernese Oberland, is an intimidating mass of grey rock and white snow. The sky has clouded over completely now, although the day is still warm enough for me to only need a T-shirt… not bad for the first weekend of April.

Looking up river towards Flühli
I reach the village of Flühli, with its faded, elegant Hotel Kurhaus. At the entrance to the village, an artist has installed sculptures for sale along the path. They consist of towers of stones, presumably cemented one on top of the other to form tall, skinny cairns. Though they would undoubtedly make for nice decorations among the bushes in a garden, the price tag of 2,500 francs or more for what are basically piles of stones really make me wonder how many the artist sells.

A hefty price tag for these stone sculptures
Beyond Flühli, I seem to pass some kind of frontier between the seasons. The temperature starts to drop, and there are few if any signs of spring. The trees are still bare and the grass on the hillsides is still a wintry grey-green colour: these slopes must have still been covered in snow very recently and indeed, I start to see patches of snow beside the path. I cross a bridge over the Rotbach, a sizeable side stream, after which the Waldemme becomes somewhat smaller and narrower, carrying less water. At the entrance to a woodland section, a noticeboard explains that these woods were inhabited in prehistoric times by the ancestors of today's dragonflies; their wingspan, I am informed, could reach almost a metre. Life-size models of these prehistoric insects are positioned strategically in the trees beside and above the path, just enough to give the unwary child or hiker a momentary fright. 

The Waldemme above Flühli
A less interesting twenty minutes comes next, where the path runs directly alongside the main road. I pass beside a scruffy second-hand car dealer's yard, where several battered wrecks of cars proudly proclaim "Quality Guaranteed!" In the middle, incongruously, is an absolutely beautiful Volkswagen Beetle from 1960. At Hirseggbrücke, I leave the road and cross the river once again. The valley narrows once more and, as at the Lammschlucht, the path climbs high up above the river. This is the steepest and longest climb of the day, zigzagging up from 900 to an altitude of about 1100 metres above the gorge. Ahead, the Brienzergrat has come considerably closer and the sky has darkened; it does not rain, but it can't be far off. 

As I approach the farm of Birkenhof, I can hear a dog barking… and it sounds like a big one. The path runs right through the middle of the farmyard, and I feel uneasy. It's a big relief when I get close enough to see the animal: a big, floppy Bernese mountain dog, which is wagging its tail frantically. It runs up to me and gives my right hand a big, wet lick, then thrusts its nose into my legs, clearly asking to be stroked… one of the more pleasant doggy encounters of my travels. Having climbed up to this highest point of the day, the path now drops all the way back down to the riverside. The last half hour offers some of the day's best scenery, as I walk up beside white water that rushes over waterfalls against a background of dark forest, with substantial snow patches in several places. 

The Brienzergrat
The day's strangest sight comes right at the end of the walk, just before I reach Sörenberg. In a snow-covered clearing, about fifteen teenagers are standing in three rows. Most of them are Asian, a few are African, and they are all half-naked, wearing Roman togas and not much else. On the edge of the clearing, an Asian girl is filming this odd scene. Out of curiosity, I ask her what they are doing. She explains that they are students from an international school, and that they are making a promotional video for some kind of school event. I debate whether to ask her for permission to take a photo of what must be one of the strangest things I have ever seen in Switzerland, but I don't dare.

The river just below Sörenberg, at the end of the walk
I reach the little ski resort of Sörenberg at about half past three, with 25 minutes to wait for the bus. The resort is shutting down for the end of the ski season: some of the bars and shops are closed until May; one cable car is operating but only a few isolated figures are skiing down slopes that are rapidly losing their last covering of snow. I sit outside the Hotel Sörenberg and order a beer until it's time to get the bus back down the valley to Schüpfheim, where I catch the train back to Lucerne. In three days' walking, I have covered pretty much the entire course of the Kleine Emme, from its mouth at Emmenbrücke to the foot of the mountains where it has its source.